Hardly an escape from all that, CBS All Access’s so-so revival of Rod Serling’s classic TV series is more like taking a metaphorical highlighter pen to the times we live in. Or maybe it’s an extra swig of anxiety to accompany your daily two-liter dose. Faithful to the original (which aired from 1959 to 1964, leaving 156 reruns that still meddle with the mind) while playing around with contemporary viewpoints, this “Twilight Zone” is co-produced by and stars Jordan Peele, who happens to be the man of the moment when it comes to presenting powerful new sociocultural messages using old genres, as he has with his hit horror films, “Get Out” and the recently released “Us.”
Granted, we already have an eerily allegorical anthology series that’s meant to make us think twice about the technological age (Netflix’s “Black Mirror”), but there is certainly room for what Peele and company are attempting in the ol’ Zone, even if the results are uneven. The episodes tend to clock in under an hour — some longer than others, and most feeling a tad bloated. Streaming TV offers creators more room to stretch, but this “Twilight Zone” would be better off keeping its tales to a firm 30 minutes.
In its first four episodes (two of which premiere on the subscription streaming service Monday, to be followed by new episodes weekly, beginning April 11), the series finds new angles to ponder on such varied topics as the personal costs of stand-up comedy routines; airline etiquette (updating a perennially favorite old episode called “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”); corruption among small-town civil servants; and, most bluntly, the fear of driving (or doing most anything) while black in America.
Peele takes on Serling’s narrator role, appearing in a dark suit and tie to remind us that the “Twilight Zone” — besides being “vast as space and timeless as infinity” and “between science and imagination” — is a realm that more or less orbits a moral center. Much of “The Twilight Zone,” then and now, was about people experiencing their own sort of hell, sometimes deserved, brought on by their worst fears. If it had been a church instead of a TV show, the sermons would have scared off the congregants; even the happiest endings came at the expense of some ironic loss. Peele conveys all this with a nice arch of an eyebrow, as if to remind us that how we relate to these stories can tell us a lot about our own struggles with darkness.
Without spoiling the central themes or outcomes of any episode, it seems the new “Twilight Zone” is perhaps too fixated on personal damnation and curses rather than straight-on, clutch-the-couch-pillow surprises.
In “The Comedian,” for example, Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”) gives a stirring opening performance as Samir, a stand-up comedian whose predictably lefty political tirades are falling flat with audiences. After one show, he has a chance encounter with a legendary but reclusive superstar (Tracy Morgan), who tells him to ditch the topical bits for more personal stories — but, Morgan’s ghostly character warns: Once you share aspects of your life with an audience, “[It’s] gone forever.”
So when Samir does a bit about his dog, there is suddenly no more dog — and never was. The audience, however, rewards Samir with the biggest laughs yet. What happens when he tells jokes about family members, his girlfriend, his rivals? “I wanted to be Chris Rock, not Evil David Copperfield,” Samir complains.
“Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” (an attempt at altitude upgrade from the 1963 episode, which starred William Shatner, as well as the intensely memorable 1983 movie version, which starred John Lithgow) impressively relocates the “gremlin” tormentor of the story from the wing of the plane to the main cabin, where Adam Scott (“Parks and Recreation”) plays a mentally fragile passenger. On a flight from Dulles to Tel Aviv, he finds an MP3 player that contains a multipart podcast that tries to elaborately solve the mysterious disappearance of the very flight Scott’s character is on. He can’t resist listening to it, and no one will listen to his increasingly panicked warnings of onboard threats.
A buzzier piece, titled “Replay,” fits best with Peele’s purview, as Sanaa Lathan stars as Nina, an attorney driving her son (Damson Idris) to his first year at a historically black college. After discovering that her clunky, old camcorder has the power to reverse time back to the beginning of the tape, Nina uses it when an encounter with a Virginia state trooper (Glenn Fleshler) escalates into a life-threatening situation.
With all there is to potentially say about that, the show chooses a predictable and possibly trite way to wrap up the episode. It’s a reminder that of all the things “The Twilight Zone” used to be and still is, it was hardly ever about the art of subtlety.
The Twilight Zone (10 episodes) premieres with two episodes Monday on CBS All Access. New episodes will stream weekly beginning April 11.